If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, simply cutting down on fossil fuels isn’t going to be enough. According to a draft of an upcoming UN report, a full-blown climate crisis can only be averted if the world also has a revolutionary rethink about the way we use land and produce our food.
Scientists and policy experts are currently meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to negotiate the final wording of a special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) looking into climate change and land use. Although set for full public release on August 8, 2019, leaked copies of the report, seen by AFP news agency and The Guardian, reveal what’s included – and, as you can imagine, it isn't pleasant reading.
On top of documenting the impact of climate change on land, the report looks to assess how land management can contribute to addressing climate change. The report is written by 107 leading scientists from 52 countries using over 7,000 scientific papers and 28,275 comments from experts and governments. It's also the first IPCC report to have more authors from developing countries, where climate change will hit hardest, than from developed countries.
Humans now exploit 72 percent of the planet’s ice-free surface for resources. In turn, land has been transformed from an asset against climate change into a major contributor of carbon. Uncultivated land, namely forests, can act as natural reservoirs to store carbon-containing chemical compounds. However, with increased deforestation, changes in land use, and soil erosion, these carbon sinks have weakened, causing carbon emissions to rise.
Another major subject in the report is food production, especially intensive agriculture and meat production. Around half of emissions of methane, a major greenhouse gas, come from cattle and rice fields. A doubling of meat consumption since the 1960s has, therefore, created a 70 percent increase in methane emissions from domesticated animals.
The plight of the planet’s land is only likely to get worse, too. As climate change begins to take hold, the degradation of land will only intensify through increased rainfall, flooding, droughts, heat stress, sea-level rise, etc.
To remedy these problems, governments across the world must agree on far-reaching policy changes within the next few decades, if not years. Policies need to include “improved access to markets, empowering women farmers, expanding access to agricultural services and strengthening land tenure security,” the report states, according to The Guardian. “Early warning systems for weather, crop yields, and seasonal climate events are also critical.”
The IPCC also argues that the planet must be "carbon neutral" within three decades to have at least a 50 percent chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If the Earth fails to cap this limit and temperatures rise by more than 2°C, the effects on biodiversity and human society will be nothing short of disastrous. For context, global temperatures for July were 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels for the month.